Alternative cancer therapies for dogs

Take a look at what alternative medicine can offer dogs that are diagnosed with cancer.

Despite all the technology used in the “war against cancer,” the disease is still feared. It seems completely unpredictable and appears to strike out of the blue. A chance encounter with a virus or carcinogen damages the nucleus of a cell, changing it forever. Often, the main change is that the cell never grows up but stays immature, fulfilling no useful role and producing endless progeny that crowd out useful cells. The gene that limits how many times the cell will divide or how long it will live never gets activated. Like a villainous Peter Pan, the cancer cell stays young forever and is answerable to no one.

The dangers of conventional treatment

Adding to the fear of cancer is the danger inherent in its treatment. Modern medicine treats cancer at the expense of an already beleaguered body, sometimes resulting in death. By targeting rapidly dividing cells, chemotherapy and radiation also injure many normal cells that naturally divide rapidly. Some of the most familiar side effects include nausea and diarrhea from damage to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, hair loss from damage to hair follicles, and anemia and hemorrhage from damage to the bone marrow.

Surgery is a more specific way to target cancer cells, but the entire tumor cannot always be removed. Furthermore, cancerous cells may break off and spread to other parts of the body. There’s also no assurance that the cancer won’t recur unless a lot of normal tissue around the tumor can be excised.

The fear lingers even after treatment is concluded. Because tumor cells are autonomous and not subject to the normal “rules of the body,” there is no guarantee they won’t return.

Some glimmers of hope are appearing against this bleak backdrop as conventional medicine doggedly presses on in its quest for a cure. While not yet available for animals, new drugs are being developed that target very specific cancer cell metabolites or receptors. However, even these highly selective therapies produce severe adverse reactions.

The alternative approach – simple but subtle

At first glance, pitting the ancient, often simplistic views of alternative medicine against cancer is a little like sending a child into battle with a water pistol. It seems inconceivable that its comparatively gentle methods could have anything to offer. Indeed, alternative medicine understands cancer in a way that is directly opposite to conventional approaches. Most traditions believe that cancer doesn’t strike out of the blue. They feel that clear risk factors exist and that cancer is a natural extension of more benign pathological processes that have probably been going on for years. Internal means to control cancer are therefore not only possible, but essential.

The weaponry that alternative medicine relies on to counter these pathological processes also seems naïve. Herbal formulas, nutrition, and vitamins are the mainstay. Occasionally, these are supplemented by surgery. Herbs and nutraceuticals that kill cancer cells exist, but they are used in much lower doses, or sometimes not at all.

Despite their simplicity, alternative therapies are frequently successful in treating cancer. Conventional medicine seeks a single cure for cancer, which is like trying to pick up a pea with a toothpick. Alternative medicine instead uses a fork to pick up the pea by synergistically employing multiple milder treatments, each with a similar thrust but coming from a slightly different direction. It makes a lot of sense that this approach should be frequently successful. When you pick up a pea with a fork, how many times is it stuck on just one tine?

What is “successful” cancer treatment?

Cancer is still the most difficult disease to treat, even for alternative medicine. Hopes for a miracle cure may be fed by anecdotes of patients going into complete remission after using alternative therapies, but what is most often and routinely achieved is long term stability. This is still an important victory in the fight against cancer, since it allows patients to experience sustained quality of life. Pain is minimal to absent. The animal can still enjoy meals and runs in the park. The tumor frequently does not grow or spread, and may even recede. Life spans can often be measured in years rather than days or weeks. Side effects are usually absent.

The long term stability derived from alternative therapies could even be considered superior to complete remission achieved by conventional treatment. Alternative therapies offer low risks and pervasive benefits that seem to outweigh the high morbidity of conventional treatments, which put only a lucky few into remission.

Thinking outside the box

Alternative veterinarians use various methods to achieve long term stability and remission. Increasingly, however, they are employing the approaches outlined in the Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine: Science and Tradition by Susan Wynn and Steve Marsden (Mosby, 2003).

In general, veterinarians base their approach on several factors, including the type of tumor, the cost of treatment, and other therapies that are being employed. The most important consideration is the “metaphoric” presentation of the patient.

Virtually all traditional medical systems viewed the body and its ailments in metaphoric terms. Because they lacked definitive knowledge of the inner workings of the body, ancient medical practitioners asked themselves: “What is this like?” In Greek medicine, the answer was frequently couched in broad terms such as Hot, Cold, Moist or Dry. In Chinese medicine, everything in the world including health and disease was a manifestation of Yin and Yang. Because Yin is Cold and Wet while Yang is Hot and Dry, Greek and Chinese medicine shared similar views on health – astonishing, as historians believe there was very little interaction between the two cultures. The correlations give the two systems validity and run through every aspect of medicine. History’s greatest physicians were contemporaries in these two cultures, and their therapies are still in use even though they were derived from this metaphoric approach.

The use of metaphors and models to advance scientific thinking is tantamount to “thinking outside the box.” Metaphoric medical systems ensure that a treatment is appropriate on a broad conceptual scale, before worrying about the fine details of its action.

The benefits of milk thistle

Contrary to popular opinion, many alternative cancer therapies have been extensively researched. While there is still much to be done, the mechanisms of several treatments have been identified and their efficacy established. A single plant or formula can support a patient in a number of different ways, because of the numerous compounds it contains. One important example is milk thistle (Silybum marianum).

Milk thistle was studied because of the controversy surrounding the use of antioxidants during conventional cancer treatment. Conventional practitioners argued that alternative therapies and vitamin supplements should be avoided, since their antioxidant effects could interfere with the action of chemotherapy and radiation. This argument was put to the test when patients receiving both conventional treatment and milk thistle, a known antioxidant, were compared to patients receiving conventional treatment alone. Surprisingly, patients receiving milk thistle had a better response to chemotherapy and radiation than patients who did not. In addition, milk thistle is a hepato-protective, serving to insulate the liver from damage by toxic chemotherapy agents.

Vitamin A plays a key role

In veterinary medicine, one of the most important alternative cancer therapies appears to be vitamin A. It has a number of anti-cancer effects, including the inhibition of blood vessel growth in tumors, but its most important role seems to be the promotion of tumor differentiation and apoptosis. All cells in the body rely on vitamin A to “differentiate” or grow up into their useful adult forms, triggering as they do so a gene which predetermines the age of their self-destruction, known as apoptosis.

One of the most popular and apparently successful regimens for the treatment of cancer in the 1950s was the Gerson therapy. A key component of this protocol developed by Max Gerson was a diet exceedingly high in vitamin A. Foods containing vitamin A include liver, orange colored vegetables and leafy greens, and are commonly found in raw pet foods and recipes for home-cooked diets.

Commercial pet foods include large proportions of carbohydrates, which may make animals more prone to cancer by squeezing out the use of foods high in vitamin A, such as organ meats. In addition, most cancer cells rely on anaerobic glycolysis to make energy, and anaerobic glycolysis requires carbohydrates.

Medical science has long known about the benefits of vitamin A in treating cancer, but ignored it, believing that the doses required were too toxic. Several recent studies have demonstrated, however, that high doses of vitamin A can be safely administered to humans under medical supervision for long periods of time. Clinical experience suggests the same is true for dogs and cats.

Several plant compounds also promote cell differentiation and can thus act synergistically with Vitamin A, lowering the dose needed to age tumors out of their Peter Pan state. These compounds include berberine, present in Oregon grape, and genistein, found in red clover. Both these plants are key components of the Hoxsey formula, a western herbal formula known for its efficacy in treating cancer. While the exact ingredients have varied over time, an effective version of the formula is published in the Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine. Another component of the Hoxsey formula, burdock root (Arctium lappa), is also found in Essiac tea, a popular anti-cancer formula. Burdock appears to act primarily as an immune stimulant, however, and does not enhance the activity of vitamin A.

Animals benefiting from the Hoxsey formula appear metaphorically to be Hot, as the following case shows.

A case of bone cancer

Guiseppe, a seven-year-old male Greater Swiss Mountain dog, presented with osteosarcoma of the upper forelimb of four months duration. Not uncommonly with this form of cancer, the tumor developed after several months of heavy exercise. Chemotherapy, radiation, and amputation were all refused. Non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medication significantly relieved the pain, but the dog was still noticeably lame.

The dog’s medical history included an episode of hypertrophic osteodystrophy when he was approximately a year old, although the disorder resolved when the dog was switched from puppy food to an adult diet. There were few other symptoms except for some dental tartar, heat intolerance, and a history of malodorous flatulence. In metaphoric medicine, bad odors and heat intolerance signal the presence of a Heat condition.

Physical examination revealed a firm mass on the left forelimb that radiated a significant amount of heat. The dog was markedly lame, panting and restless. Decubital ulcers were present on the right limbs because Guiseppe was lying on them all the time, and there was slight nasal hyperkeratosis

Treatment consisted of the Hoxsey formula and a monthly subcutaneous injection of approximately 500 000 IU of vitamin A and 75 000 IU of vitamin D3. Three days later, Guiseppe’s guardians reported a marked improvement. He was much less restless, and the nasal hyperkeratosis already seemed to be resolving. Allergy tests indicated Guiseppe had reactions to beef, pork, soy and corn, but none to egg, fish, chicken, rice and wheat. He was placed on Select Care Neutral diet to avoid exposure to potential antigens.

Three weeks later, Guiseppe was presented to a conventional veterinarian with a painless mass on the left front leg that intermittently drained pus and blood. Bacteria were present in the discharge and Cephalexin was prescribed. Curiously, the antibiotics Guiseppee had been prescribed seemed to antagonize his lameness, although he was still quite playful and active.

My next physical examination of Guiseppe revealed the osteosarcoma was reduced in size. Antibiotics were discontinued because they aggravated Guiseppee’s bone pain. Homeopathic silica was prescribed because of the history of bone problems and to help promote drainage. Discharging lesions are seen in some cancer cases as they resolve, and should be allowed to drain if they present no discomfort to the animal.

Four months later, Guiseppe was gaining weight, hardly lame at all, and was active and energetic, although the draining lesions persisted. Thirteen months after onset, and nine months after treatment was initiated, Guiseppe’s guardians reported that he was free of lameness. The discharging lesions resolved, the left forelimb was normal and the tumor had entered permanent remission.


Dr. Steve Marsden is co-founder of Edmonton Holistic Veterinary Clinic, and is arguably the foremost holistic veterinary practitioner in the world. As such, he spends three months a year teaching veterinarians on five continents. In 2009, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association honoured Dr. Steve as “Small Animal Veterinarian of the Year”, and in 2010, the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association named him “teacher of the year”. In addition to his veterinary work, he spends half his time treating people, thanks to his credentials as a naturopathic physician and his training as a Chinese medical practitioner.